5. Philadelphia 76ers
In years past, I would have had this surprisingly retentive squad in and out of my top five throughout the year, and almost always would have ended with them just outside upon entering the postseason. They always look good, but seldom do they make me believe they have what it takes to make a serious title claim. Given this history, I lean toward excluding them now; however, the reinvigorated play coming from Joel Embiid has inspired me. I still do not know how I feel about them as a legitimate Finals option, but I know that with their All-Star post player at potentially his career best, I cannot eliminate them from winning the East and making a run.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
When Kawhi Leonard and Paul George first moved to the city of angels, I felt ready to just hand them the trophy. Now, their erratic play — as well as their crosstown rival absolutely destroying everyone in their path — has given me some pause in picking champions early. They have started the season hot, but with Leonard’s unpredictable nature (remember last year’s “load management” games?) and with George’s tag as the most notoriously not-clutch player in the league, they definitely seem better poised to drop to fifth or even out on this list before they jump to third for me.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Yes, the 76ers have started off this year looking a little hotter, but with a more difficult opening schedule (Philadelphia has four wins from Charlotte and a disappointing Washington), this is the Eastern Conference team that scares me the most. Akin to the story of Tantalus, they have a streak of disappointing postseason appearances, but I think this could be the year they make the Finals. 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Milwaukee’s last and only championship victory, and no city seems hungrier for a win in any sport than this one. Moreover, if they make the Finals and Giannis Antetokoumnpo gets that close to a ring, any Western Conference team has a snowball’s chance in hell to stop him from winning — LeBron or otherwise. Sing, Goddess, Giannis’ rage.
2. Utah Jazz
A week ago this team would have sat roughly where Philadelphia does now. Honestly, they might not have even made my list. But with an impressive streak of wins to push them ever close to becoming the best in the west, I toyed this week with placing them first overall. These guys are the real deal in any case, and with the way they have played in their most recent games, I do not know if I can see any team beating them in a series of seven. If Donovan Mitchell can continue to own his game every night, no one would even get a game seven. Look in the coming weeks to see if they can ride their momentum to a top seed, or if they crash and burn to a middle-of-the-road postseason slot.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
As reigning champions, sitting atop the Western Conference with two top Vegas choices for MVP candidates, I would be a fool right now to place this squad anywhere else on the list. All of their losses look like flukes, and no team has deconstructed them enough where I could believe LeBron would not follow their next matchup with a Jordan-esque embarrassment. Unless they meet a fiery Milwaukee in the Finals, the only teams that could stop them come from across their own city and just a few states over in Utah. Yet, if the Clippers cannot refine their superstars’ play and if Utah loses any of its momentum, look for a repeat of last year’s festivities and yet another ring for this decade’s defining player.
Hot Seat: Brooklyn Nets
With all the hype, I feel an obligation to write about this team here. Reverting back to Big Three style team-building not perfected since LeBron’s departure from Miami, they play a risky game. More than that, they do so without a post presence coming from any of the three. They can win big games, but with the noted selfishness of all three of their big names and their complete and utter lack of any depth whatsoever, they sit on thin ice in regard to losing this spot. If they trade Kyrie for a better team’s entire bench, they might get the chance to move into the top five. But, if they do not make a change for the better, this spot will likely move to either the Cavaliers or the Knicks — whoever pulls off another unexpected upset next. They may not be top teams, but they are certainly hot in a way I never expected, especially the Cavs, who just embarrassed the Nets with back to back upsets (if we still can even call them that).